Disclaimer: The NextDrive Spectra X sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion. We thank the team at NextDrive for giving us this opportunity.
To read more about NextDrive Products Review on Headfonics click here.
Earlier in the year, I reviewed the NextDrive Spectra DAC with good marks. Today, I will be looking at their latest model, the Spectra X.
The world of very small and portable DAC’s is a niche of a niche market, so I am curious to find out how it stacks up against some of the competition out there, as well as the original version of the Spectra from earlier in 2017.
The Build and Box
Nothing special to report about the box. For $189USD, I am not complaining at all. Some paperwork and the unit itself is all I desire anyway. The Spectra X is made of aluminum and feels solid in the hand.
Build quality marks will be top notch here, no doubt, the more I play with it and handle it, the more I enjoy how nice it is to not have to move anything around in my portable setup. And yes, I do use this on my Android phone, and often.
It is an absolute godsend to strap the Spectra X to my OnePlus 6T and never have to worry about anything ever again for portable needs. As much as I enjoy the certified audiophile DAP world, I prefer my phone and a moderate setup on the go. So for me, this is perfectly sized and shaped to be unobtrusive when it is in my pocket or my side bag when I am on photo shoots or looming around Cleveland.
Yep, thankfully the Spectra X pairs seamlessly with your pick of an Android device. The problem I ran into was the USB connection for newer generation phones, which are Type-C usually these days.
So, a swift Amazon purchase later, I received a Type C to standard USB so I can connect the Spectra X to my OnePlus 6T through an OTG connector. Where prior, I didn’t have any worries with my Samsung phone that uses a normal mini.
A future-proof set of USB adapters would have been pretty cool. I might just feel that is to be expected to house a C style adapter. But, I may be asking too much, perhaps, at this price point. Your pick of a great music app (coughHibycough) is going to suit you well. I’ve never had a disconnection issue.
NextDrive does offer multiple cable types for this model, so your needs are covered with type-A, type-C.
PC DAC/Amp power
As is with the Android pairing, so too, can you pair it with a PC to be used as a primary home DAC. If you are on the go with a laptop and don’t want a large DAC sitting with you, this is a fantastic option for you. Loudness is typically an issue with DAC’s that offer no volume control except whatever the source app supports. Here, the amp is rated at 2Vrms and good for up to 600ohm headphones, which I find to be a massive stretch.
Yes, I can get solid volume out of my 600ohm’ers with the volume sliders set to max and maybe a small amp bump that is digital in-app as well. But, driving power is different and certainly not intended to be used with supremely power hungry headphones. Stick to 250ohm models and you will be fine. I am primarily using Foobar2000 because I feel it the most versatile and useful music app out there.
The DAC model – 9018Q2C
I am sure readers already know my thoughts on this DAC. I am very unfond of it and feel it more than last-generation. I don’t want to see any products housing the ES9018 at all. Ever, not even the mobile or desktop versions. This is old tech and I want to see innovation with new circuits.
If we are to use the older DAC’s out there, I want it done in a new, refreshing way and I don’t hear that in this Spectra X. What is there, sounds great. But, I do not hear any uniqueness to the experience that makes this model something my ears crave.
The 9018Q2C is outdated and tends to sound overly clean at times in certain implementations. Here, NextDrive does a good job with it not lacking in any specific areas but, as I suspected, nothing is standing out and grabbing my attention in a sonic sense of the word.
One of the primary reasons I dislike the 9018Q2C is because of the pure bass tonality. And that is wildly subjective and totally my preferences. I regard it highly on an objective basis as very nice sounding DAC with a transparent amp stage. Subjectively and for those like me who like a thicker, hefty and plentiful low end, we will not be satisfied without excessive amounts of EQ added in via the source app.
That is not to say the Spectra X is lacking bass. It isn’t. It is very balanced sounding and that is a great thing if you like that type of presentation. Bass headphones and those who enjoy low-end impact a lot, typically require more and there is where EQ comes into play to fix that subjective need.
I am able to boost up to about a +5dB before I start to hear distortions and feel them in my bassier models out yonder. For the price, that is a good response! But, I expect more weight and less physical slam factor, which raises up a fair deal as I slide that EQ bar up on the bassy end of the spectrum.
This is a great DAC for starters who need an ultra-portable solution. Those who want a balanced and un-exaggerating experience down below. If you like purity factor in the bass this is a good option for you.
The entire experience of the Spectra X is very balanced and linear. I do not detect a forward midrange or any bloom from top to bottom. The presentation is very streamlined and easy on the ear.
Without anything fighting for attention or ever feeling lopsided, the Spectra X offers a good sense of balance across the board and purists should love this type of sound. Musicality chasers probably won’t. Vocals lack a sense of heft and weight that do justice to a number of midrange voice titans, such as my ATH-ESW11LTD.
That sense of balance does robs it of any intimacy, but then again, that might have been the point of the design. Some DAC’s have a very forward midrange that are great for midrange-centric headphones. Others are wider feeling with great balance. The latter being more in line with the Spectra X’s presentation.
In the way of pure fidelity, the DAC is excellent. I’ve just come off a UDX DAC review that costs a bit more than this Spectra X and I felt the two to be pretty similar in features and sound type. For what it is, it is a very nice purity factor. Neutral. No doubt there. But, with a penchant for a brighter upper midrange sometimes and depending on the track genre.
The upper end of the Spectra X is gently bright and what I call “just a tad musical” in a vivid sense of the word. However, quantity, again, does not intrude on the midrange, or vice versa. Quantity factor is still in line with the mids and neither fight for attention. But, brightness can sometimes, not too often, lead to something noticeably more bright and vivid than the midrange.
If you have treble sensitive headphones, you’ll probably hear this very easily and more often than with a mid or bass centered headphone. It isn’t annoying. I rather enjoy it actually. It gives my ears something to grab now and then and keeps my attention off the flat response type of the tonality of the presentation as a whole. Never piercing or sibilant. Thankfully.
When it comes to sub-$250 DAC’s, I cannot name a single titan of a sound staging device that exists on the market. For on the go needs, this is a great DAC, that is for certain. But, if you have a large sound field monitor, this is not the right DAC for you. As I have found the experience to be relatively average in terms of sound staging properties.
Realism factor is excellent. However, physical width and height factor, as well as air and separation qualities are just good and nothing special to write home for. The Spectra X at $189 does a good job all around but does not reach out to grab me in the imaging department so much.
Could they have done better? I’m not sure, the circuitry is very small there and I am not knocking points off for it because I don’t really know of a single other small DAC that sounds spacious. So, in the realm of small DAC’s, the Spectra does a great job with it.
Comparing to more desktop centered DAC’s, the experience is lacking. Swapping between my Burson Playmate and this results in a massive change in depth of field and width factor. But, is that a fair comparison? I’ll leave that up to readers to decide.
The Spectra X is a very good little DAC, make no mistake. The purity and fidelity factor is punching over its price tag. The build quality is excellent and the low profile design is very user-friendly when on the go. I use it often, but as someone who prefers musicality over purity, I want a very warm sounding Spectra X with more heft and thickness.
Purity enthusiasts will go nuts for this. This is a fantastic stepping stone DAC for those with a good portable neutral setup or who want a very small DAC that can be used on the PC and a phone as well.
The portable setup with an Android phone is fantastic and really makes me happy in the way of overall fidelity. I take it with me often for trips even though I don’t really enjoy a neutral sound. I offset that with a pairing of a very bass and thick sounding headphone and I am still happy with the sound as a result.
Spectra X Technical Specifications
- Audio DAC/Amp: ESS Sabre 9018Q2C
- Dynamic range: 121dB / THD +N: 0.001%
- Max output: 13.3 mW 300 Ohm / 49 mW 32 Ohm
- PCM: 32-bit/384kHz / DSD: Quad-rate 11.2 MHz
- 3.75″ x 0.44″ x 0.44″ / 95 x 11.2 x 11.2 mm
- Total length: 9.25 in / 23.5 cm long